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The Al-Jazeera Revolutions

Thursday, July 4, 2002

Ehud Ya'ari

Qatar has discovered a new commodity more precious than its gas and oil - power-generating satellite TV.

Out of a modest, low-rise prefab five minutes' drive from the Emir's diwan, the tiny sheikhdom of Qatar is now producing a commodity much in demand in the Arab world: freedom. Over the past three years, this remote desert peninsula has transformed itself from just another gas and petroleum-rich principality into a major exporter of powerful video signals that are gradually changing the cultural and political order in the Middle East.

Since it started broadcasting in November 1996, the Al-Jazeera (The Peninsula) satellite TV channel has consistently grown in popularity, overtaking both the government-run stations of the region and the London-based, Saudi-financed Arabic networks. TV ratings aren't available for most of the Arab world, but among the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Al-Jazeera is now the preferred station for close to 40 percent of all TV viewers.

The reason for its dizzying success is one and alone: This is a channel that screens the kind of topics that others don't - everything from women's rights under Islam to the lack of democracy in the Arab world and the pros and cons of peace with Israel. Operating as a kind of Arabic CNN with news bulletins on the half hour, Al-Jazeera's real strength lies in its debate programs, special documentaries and one-on-one interviews with personalities such as Hamas's Dr. Musa Abu Marzuk, who wouldn't get a hearing on any other Arab station.

Consequently, everyone's furious with the Qataris. The powerful Saudis - who are fellow adherents to the strict Wahabi version of Islam - are driven to distraction by the invasion of their free-thinking neighbors into the living room of every home with a cheap satellite dish on the roof. "We know what they're up to," the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, recently fumed into a reporter's microphone during a momentary lapse of composure in Riyadh airport.

The state-run Egyptian media has been running a bitter, if intermittent, campaign against the "yellow programs" of Al-Jazeera, condemning the station's "sinister salad of sex, religion and politics" spiced with "sensationalist seasoning." Nevertheless, curiosity got the better of President Mubarak. When he visited Doha two months ago, he came to see the studios for himself.

The Jordanian government has accused Al-Jazeera of inciting violence. Yasser Arafat is hopping mad about the station's repeated and lengthy interviews with Hamas spiritual guide Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Yassin, for his part, vigorously protests at the type of questions he's asked. The Syrians grouch about the frequent appearances of Israeli politicians. Interviewed by Al-Jazeera's Palestinian correspondent in Jerusalem, they get much more than sound-bite time. Meanwhile Jewish organizations in the United States - and chief among them the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center - have urged Al-Jazeera to refrain from anti-Semitic undertones.

The Qataris are having a hard time hiding their glee at all the fuss they're creating. The mini-emirate has all of a sudden morphed into a super-player on the regional board. Al-Jazeera affords Qatar a new status that evokes the envy of governments several times stronger than it.

Abu Dhabi, probably the emirate with the most bloated financial reserves in all the Arab world, recently launched a satellite competitor to Al-Jazeera. Millions of dollars - nobody knows the exact amount - have been poured into the acquisition of staff, the programming, the nurturing of the "look," the packaging and the opening of bureaus in every corner of the globe. But so far, at least, it hasn't even made a dent in Al-Jazeera's hegemony. "They can't hope to offer what we provide," a high-ranking official in Doha told me. "They're scared of freedom."

Indeed, so long as the elderly, ailing Sheikh Zayyed rules in the United Arab Emirates (which include Abu Dhabi but not Qatar), Abu Dhabi is likely to avoid undue provocation, and this political correctness naturally detracts from the popularity of its TV product.

The Qataris, for their part, have discovered a veritable treasure trove of influence - satellite riches - which they've turned into an undeclared arm of their dynamic foreign policy. Whenever they come under a hail of criticism, Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamed Bin-Jasem al-Thani simply retorts that Al-Jazeera is a private business and not an organ of the government - which is nominally correct. But that's not the whole story. For one thing, Al-Jazeera steers completely clear of Qatar's own sensitive, internal issues. That's the one taboo the station hasn't broken. Furthermore, while Qatar relies on satellite dishes to broadcast its messages, it forbids the installation of such dishes on its own turf. Qataris receive Al-Jazeera by cable, but the authorities are able to block the reception of other stations that try to counter Al-Jazeera by exposing what's going on inside Qatar.

"Why is that?" I asked in Doha. "Oh," I was told, "to prevent the spread of corrupting culture."

The genesis of the idea of Al-Jazeera came out of the collapse of the ambitious but short-lived partnership between the BBC TV Arabic service and the Saudis. They fell out because of their conflicting approaches to content - the BBC style of reporting was just too much for the Saudi co-owners. According to sources in Doha, several members of the Al-Thani family were interested in the possibility of acquiring the Saudi share and continuing to run the London-based station. But the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin-Khalifa, less than a year after deposing his father, asked his advisers: "Why go over there? Why not do it from here instead?"

A company was set up and the ruling family put up $150 million as a five-year "loan" with which to establish the new channel, practically in the courtyard of the building of the official Qatari TV. The Information Ministry was closed down - a model the Jordanians are about to copy - and most of the Arab broadcasters, editors and journalists from the newly defunct BBC TV Arabic service were offered attractive enough salaries to relocate to Doha. Given the lack of alternative employment, it was an offer they couldn't refuse. With the team in place, Al-Jazeera started to beam up - and conquered the airwaves.

Of the 200 or so employees, only the administrative staff and a few of the technicians are Qataris. The editorial floor constitutes a kind of Foreign Legion of talent from all over the Arab world. Even wider than the variety of states represented is the variety of opinions and political backgrounds. One journalist who volunteered in the fundamentalist ranks in the war in Afghanistan now works shoulder-to-shoulder with an editor who's a radical secularist. Staffers opposed to any kind of peace with Israel work alongside champions of normalization. Sworn enemies of Saddam Hussein work together with his supporters. It's obvious to everyone that some of those in their midst double as informants to one intelligence agency or another, reporting on their colleagues.

Still, for all the angst this set-up causes within the station, the tension isn't reflected on screen. Moreover, it blends nicely with Qatar's plans to translate its newly acquired influence into a mediating role in regional disputes. They are already upping their international profile through mediation attempts in Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen - though they haven't born much fruit yet. They are the chief intercessors in trying to improve Arab relations with Iran; it was through the Qataris that Iran's President Khatemi passed his request for the West to relax the pressure on his government in the months preceding the recent elections. At the same time, they also advocate the lifting of U.N. sanctions from Iraq (and just to be on the safe side, they've invited the Americans to set up a large base on their turf). When the Jordanians wanted to deport the heads of Hamas from their territory, Qatar agreed to host them - in comfortable villas within walking distance of the Israeli trade mission in Doha's industrial zone. And the Qataris quietly promote ties with Israel even while they praise Hizballah's operations.

On programs like "The Opposite Direction" anchored by Syrian presenter Faisal al-Qassem, "Without Borders" and "The Other Opinion," Al-Jazeera opens the floor for free and often noisy debate on some of the most sensitive issues in Arab society, including relations with Israel. One particularly stormy discussion of late pitted an Egyptian who supports the normalization of ties with Israel against another Egyptian who kept on quoting anti-Semitic literature.

Other Arabic stations wouldn't even consider screening such discussions, which result in floods of telephone calls to the studios and reams of protests in the press.

In February, Al-Jazeera dared to conduct an hour-long interview with Robert Hatem, a.k.a. "Cobra," the former bodyguard of Eli Hobeika, the intelligence chief of the Lebanese Phalange militia that was responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla. "Cobra" accused his ex-boss of a long list of murders, including that of his baby daughter, and spoke in detail about Hobeika's part in the September 1982 massacre. He also gave a verbatim account of the censure Hobeika received at the time from Arik Sharon.

The interview sparked a huge furor in Lebanon. Hobeika, who over the years has become one of Syria's most prominent quislings in Beirut, was forced to break his silence for the first time. In a more than three-hour interview he granted Future TV, a Lebanese station owned by former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Hobeika struggled to deny, contradict and defend himself against the accusations.

Never before in the history of the Arabic media had a politician been forced to respond point by point to such serious personal accusations, setting a powerful precedent. Hobeika, incidentally, tried to shift the responsibility for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre onto Israel and its allies in the South Lebanon Army, then under the command of Major Sa'ad Haddad. "Are you saying that they carried out the massacre?" Hobeika was asked. "Well who else did it? The Swedes?" he replied.

This investment in new standards of Middle Eastern free expression is paying off for the Qataris. It affords them not only plenty of enemies, but influence to boot. Instead of being treated like some lowly mini-state, everyone is now careful to give them respect. At last, the Qataris have some way of punishing, avenging and nipping back at anyone who relates to them as mere "Beduins with oil."

All that for what is, for them, the very reasonable cost of some $100 million a year in indirect government funding, until they can get into the full swing of broadcasting commercials. (Saudi control of most of the advertising agencies in the region has made this a tough call.)

Al-Jazeera's next target? An interview with Ehud Barak. So far he's ducked the invitation, though his advisers keep urging him to take the risk, if he'd really like to talk to his neighbors without censorship.